Monday, December 18, 2006

The Modern Film

This weekend, amongst other things, we spent a lot of our time discussing film.
Try this quotation from the mouth of Herr Maximilian Hien, which I would love to set as an essay…
"Spiderman is the most historically accurate film ever made" (discuss…)

The other reason why we were discussing film was, however, far less amusing. Modern film treads far too often the line between being "artistic", "original", "thought-provoking" etc and being quite simply very disturbed. Moral messages are no longer politically correct, nor are they in vogue, and are therefore non-existant, even in situations where their absence leaves a gaping black hole into which any kind of developing mind might fall never to emerge again.

Thus it is that, while reading the bbc news on saturday, Mylene and I began to discuss the films we had seen recently. Beginning with Le Parfum, film of the book by Patrick Suskind. In my mind, this film just about keeps its balance on the arty side of the line, it's a very well-made (if slightly tacky historically) film, that is not violent, just bizarre, despite containing the murders of not five but twelve women whose essence is needed to make the most incredible perfume in the world (and who, incidentally, are left naked…).
The second film we talked about was Scoop, one that I haven't seen but that Mylene and Jeremie went to around a month ago, and came back with good reports of. It's a comedy, but apparently somewhere in there (one of the sub-plots?) there is a serial killer bearing striking similarities to the one we've been hearing about much closer to home. Maybe someone can fill me in on its role, but Mylene was definitely in agreement that there was no kind of condemnation of this, that it was almost treated as unremarkable, the kind of occurrence one hears about all the time…
This led us on to talking about Match Point, which we'd all watched together a couple of months ago, and which is a decent film up to half way through at which point it becomes unbearable up to the end, and which deliberately leaves you unclear as to whether or not the murderer was ever caught (the stronger indication being that he wasn't, and that one is invited to be happy for him as a result).
Three films in three months–not representative of a high proportion of modern film, admittedly, but still a higher proportion than one would like to see treading that very fine line between thought provoking and simply disturbed.
And one asks oneself this: how many disturbed people does it take to make such a film? Script writer, producer, director, and probably a few other people who have to approve a big budget affair, they all have to think it's a good story, or at least an appropriate story for the cinema screen. As well as one that will sell to the modern world, clearly. It's unlikely that filmmakers are very disproportionately disturbed compared with the rest of society, so if there are that many in the film industry it doesn't bode well for the rest of us, especially when they're swaying us in that direction.

Personally, I find it hard to watch violent films anyway. Things of the nature of Ocean's Eleven or Bond don't bother me in the least, but while my friends get excited about Kill Bill, I can't watch it at all. That, I admit, is a personal dislike. What I don't think is a personal dislike is being disgusted by films that are, as I say, simply disturbed. My flatmates genuinely enjoyed Match Point. That worries me.

Now, I'm not trying to say film is the cause of all our problems, nor am I saying all modern films are like this, but it seems to me that when we look at the problems of a few individuals in society and ask ourselves, how could anyone even think about doing these things, or when we say "oh, they are mentally ill" we should perhaps stop to think about whether it's not them but the whole modern society that is psychotically disturbed, and whether it might be a good idea NOT to make feature films that require an intelligent, rational, stable audience. Because all it takes is one individual to miss the artistic value or misunderstand the fiction of the film slightly and you could be getting far more real-life chaos than we currently have.

What a depressing post. We had a good weekend really!! Must go and teach…

Since writing all that, Mark has quite rightly pointed out that what I say about Match point isn't really fair on the film, nor is it really what I wanted to say. Here is Mark's opinion, with which I agree…(hope you don't mind me copying direct!)
"its actually a very brave and honest film which acknowledges that real life stories don't generally conclude in an hour and a half, or have a positive moral lesson to take away from them. despite that, i'd be very surprised if anyone had fallen into any kind of moral abyss as a result of watching match point. i personally found it quite morally affirming to watch the remorse and hysteria he started to develop and which would only get worse. he's a tragic hero not too disimilar to macbeth - the reason you empathise with the character is that he has a lot of good qualities - it wouldn't be of interest if he was just some cackling villain who would obviously never exist. he's just a realistic character with some good and bad qualities, who allows himself to get into a position where the bad qualities overwhelm the good ones, and that's the tragedy of the story. and in any case its not as if he really escapes punishment - i would personally much rather go to jail than start seeing visions of people i'd murdered. its much like macbeth or crime or punishment, if anything its a study of morality - its all about how most people cannot do terrible things and not feel the moral consequences of them."

Yes–absolutely, and it's a highly successful very well made one at that. I think what I wanted to say before, using Match Point as an illustration, was more about what our making of films about these realities tells us–that is, that . I think it's a good sign that we can make intelligent, meaningful, speculative studies like this one, and that we are introspective, capable of seeing the weaknesses in ourselves and our lives. But I don't like the fact that this is praised as us acknowledging the brutal realities of modern society and yet no one stops to talk about the fact that this necessarily requires that *being* realistic. We love studying it but there's no one saying wait, this shouldn't be reality. It's almost like we take these people, these behaviours, for granted.
While I admit that Macbeth is the same sort of character and that clearly these kinds of stories are not limited to modern film, it seemed to me that the frequency with which we encounter such things these days and the extent to which they are regarded as nothing out of the ordinary was worth raising an eyebrow at? But perhaps I am wrong…

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Exciting phone news

I should have said earlier, that owing to Mylène's expert negotiatory powers, we will very shortly have unlimited (yes, unlimited) phone calls to foreign landlines in many countries (including greece, germany, italy, uk…). As a result, if any of you have landline numbers that you think I might not have, please send them to me :) thank you!

Student Life

I think I might have too many reminders?!

A snapshot: today is Tuesday. At 10am I have already finished work and I arrive back home. The kitchen table contains:

Empty sorbet tub
3 clean bowls
2 dirty bowls
1 empty bottle of something Gareth was drinking last night
Our very chic candle strip
Tomato ketchup
1 baguette
1 card game
1 dvd
Kitchen roll
€1,15 loose change

Fete de la Lumière

The 8th December has been a special day in Lyon's calendar since 1852, when it was the inauguration day for a statue of Mary at Fourviere, to say thank you on behalf of the town for their being saved from La Peste by her. (Excuse my slightly incomplete historical knowledge…). On that day, the Lyonnais spontaneously lit candles at all their windows and came out into the streets to celebrate, and the 8th has been celebrated in this way ever since. However, since the 1990s it has grown into a big festival and since 2001 has been officially four days long, with light displays all over the main town spaces. So it is that each year thousands flock to Lyon for the weekend to see the lights, and all the Lyonnais are eager to see what this year's creations will be like.
This year, a rather blowy thursday led to a friday of heavy rain…but this was not enough to discourage us excited year abroaders, and so equipped with umbrellas (in my case one that had seen better days) and my weatherproof camera, we set off to discover the 'central event' of the fête, which is a candlelit procession from the Cathedral in Vieux Lyon up the hill to the Fourviere Basilica, accompanied all the way by speakers blasting cheesy 'merci marie' songs, at the end of which there is then a mass whose congregation spills out of the church. On our way up, we were just having a debate with Max about the meaning of the word 'train' (in English, not French) when we were accosted by a TV journalist and his camera man, who asked us what we were feeling about the procession. Three stereotypical responses later, we moved on up the hill. Down in town again, rather bedraggled and annoyed by people with umbrellas, we took a break in Bellecour to dry off a bit and install candles on our own window ledges. But then, keen to see more, we set off once more in the direction of the Hotel de Ville. Things were really buzzing–stalls on the streets selling chestnuts, crêpes, waffles, burgers, kebabs, or mulled wine, occurred every 10 metres, and the queue, if you could call it that, to see the inside of the hotel de ville, was possibly the most sardine tin like experience I've had. Well worth the effort though, as inside the lighting effects were so good the walls actually looked painted. On we went, warmed by more cups of mulled wine, up the other hill, the Croix Rousse, where we found a very lively square lit with moving butterflies and entertained by fire artists, and complete with the cheapest wine (€1) and some rather delicious home made cake in aid of a well in Burkina Faso (as the student selling it was so keen to tell us). Lovely. Back down the hill, we once more crossed the Terreaux, where 15 spheres were suspended, changing colour and talking to each other (they were representing planets and other such heavenly whatsits), and carried on to St Nizier, a definite contestant for the best Son et Lumiere this year, and finally to Place des Celestins, where insects danced to classical music and the whole square was full of perfume. Bizarre.
Think that sounds like enough? But that was only Friday! On Saturday, there was a strike on metro and sncf (i.e. normal trains). As a result, what could have been just a brief encounter with Pete, Millie and Clare as they headed towards St Etienne to visit Lucy turned into an entire evening and morning with them, which was lovely! After fetching some pizza from around the corner, we moved off once again to Terreaux and beyond, this time seeing the traboules on the croix rousse, old passages built for transporting silks up and down the hill inside the buildings, in which there were various student light creations, not least some bobbins of silk that were very pretty. Back down to the presqu'ile again, we finished our tour at Vieux Lyon in time to see the cathedral lit up in showers of blue for the last time that evening. Sadly I didn't get to the other side of the Rhone, but I certainly saw plenty, and the party atmosphere was fantastic–crowds in the streets all night long and an impression of being at the snow ball…throughout the city!
Selected photos can be found in my facebook album at

In a moment of inspiration (or just severe boredom) while planning lessons about Christmas on Sunday, I decided to summarise the (four) 12 days of Fete de la lumiere, and it went something like:
On my first day in Lyon, my French friend gave to me…
…A tree with sparkling leaves
…2 butterflies
…3 red lights
…4 silken spools
…6 wasps a-dancing
…7 angels flying
…8 candles glowing
…9 wine pots steaming
chestnuts roasting
…11 brollies dripping
…12 spheres a-talking

Chris Thomas and I agree that Cambridge needs a big festival like this. Suggestions on a postcard please.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Loans, wages, and the injustice of Year Abroad finance

Those of us who, on our Year Abroad, have chosen to work or teach (those being two different things, clearly) are both students and employees at the same time. This is complex enough for us to understand ourselves, let alone anyone else, and can be very awkward to try to explain to, for example, your flatmates, or your bank manager.
As a result of this rather bizarre situation, although in the government's eyes we deserve more money (because we are living abroad), each potential source of finance individually decides that we deserve less, and so we are paid a "work experience" salary and we receive a fraction of our student loan. This in itself is not a great problem, since with the two put together one can live.

However, the injustice goes further than that. In as far as the loan is concerned, the Student Finance forms fail to include a suitable box to teach for the Teaching Assistant situation, forcing one to be either on 'paid placement' or 'study abroad'. As a result, no two british councillers fill in the form the same way, and we all receive totally different amounts of loan, varying from about 1/3 of the full loan, to its entirety. My personal experience was that I asked a Student Finance advisor, who clearly hadn't a clue what I was talking about and told me to send a letter about what I was going to be doing (which I duly did). But there are thousands of us every year, and have been since before loans began: they surely ought to get familiar with our case?!

On the other side, as regards wages, we are paid about half the salary of a normal teacher ( i think), for doing 12 hours a week, when "normal" teachers in France do 15-18 hours. According to the powers that be, this ought to be enough to live on. They also like to tell us that with only 12 hours a week, we will have lots of time to travel around, and to experience the French culture. However, they fail to mention that this will only be possible if we finance it ourselves (and, incidentally, we don't have the right to take on other contracted part-time work).

Most of the assistants I know are paying between €300 and €450 in rent per month. Add to this €100 for food (which is only feasible if you are eating tesco value equivalent everything and not much at that), €30 for dinner out once a month and €50 for a few evenings in the pub and maybe a concert, or a trip to the cinema. Then there's the Técély (metro card) at €30 and phone credit or contract at €30/40. Put together, we're already at €690, which means that if you ever want to go back to england or you go to Paris for the weekend (each at more or less €100), that's your €760 easily used up. Don't forget you also have to pay £200 a term fees to cambridge (but that's why you have a loan as well as your salary).
Forget the weekend of skiing at €110, forget clothes and shoes, books in french, letters and presents to send home. Forget buying cheese on the market at €5 a piece. Forget singing lessons or subscriptions to various other activities, or dance classes at €10 a time. Forget all those visions you had of visiting your fellow year-abroaders for friendly gatherings in their different European hideouts.

On the other hand, some assistants have the wonderful fortune to be housed by their school at a rate of €0-€75 per month, giving them at least an extra €300 a month to play with. Now that equates to three weekends away, two new pairs of shoes and three or four more dinners out, posh food, cinema once a week and regular dance classes. You get the idea. Now that is very nice for them, but one wonders whether the salary was designed with them in mind, or with us in mind? It certainly makes us gasp when we compare their life abroad with the life of someone stuck in the banlieue paying through the nose just because they're foreign.

I'll stop there as the rant's gone far enough and i don't want to suggest we don't have enough money to be able to live well out here (as I say, thank goodness we get some loan) but I don't think there's any harm done in pointing out the injustices in the system(s), is there? And this time, it's not just the fault of french paperwork…At least we can be thankful we get more than a full time intern in a paris office, c. €300).

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Matters ecclesiastical

Today I went to Lyon Anglican Church a.k.a 'easychurch' (see "Spreading the Word of God to English speaking people in Lyon". It was a service of lessons and carols for Advent, "The Advent Hope".

Liturgy: Is something the Orthodox church has
Advent wreath: Blue metallic candles, a purple one in the centre
Hymn book: Mission Praise (The Complete)
Pew Bibles: Yes
Chasuble: No
High Altar and Reserved Sacrament: Not in a month of Sundays
Organ: replaced by small group of assorted musicians including exciting african drum
Hymns: A few good ones, but bad word changes and some classic rubbish ("His saints…will meet Him in the air" made me laugh particularly)
Language: Modern except for some invading 'thy' in the Lord's Prayer
Flowers: There's a potted palm tree in the sanctuary
Coffee: Yes, and even what purport to be Jaffa Cakes!
Youth group: definitely
Banners: Several
Involvement of people: Very keen
Multiculturalism: High

When the vicar asked me what church I went to at home, his response was "Ah, not quite like this then". No, says I, but it's not a bad thing to see a different church from time to time. And indeed, it's not. Having been fully prepared for a happy-clappy experience, I was actually rather pleased with what I found this morning. Musically dodgy at times, but nevertheless much better than the catholic churches where it would appear that 490 of the 500 people there don't have a clue how to sing the hymn, and most don't even try. Lots of young readers, which was good, and a community that notices you–I met a lovely (English) family who invited me to lunch at their house, in fact it turned out that their daughter who is also on her year abroad was Cecily's roommate at school and is now at University with Sarah! The world is very small. Apparently the man who is in charge of their music is also involved with the Chemin Neuf community so there might be an opportunity to discover more about that too.
Until now, I'd tried a few different churches near me. First, I went to the Cathedral (St Jean) but although I quite liked it, after discovering that their 60-strong girls choir was amplified and that their adult choir was rubbish, I decided to move on. Next I went to St Bonaventure, an old Franciscan church of grand proportions at Cordeliers. I liked this a lot: relaxed and with a decent proportion of young people, and interesting sermons. Also, they have an organ recital series before the evening mass at 7pm on the first sunday of every month. Lovely. However, I thought I'd better try at least one more, so off I trotted to St Nizier, an enormous cathedral-like church not far from Bellecour. This too I liked: so big a congregation that it's full to bursting on Sunday morning and there are not enough seats unless you get there early, lots of young families and what looks like a decent student-age lot as well. The one problem: despite helping set up their 'crèche' (crib scene) last sunday, there isn't really any way of being known/getting to know people in such a big church…I shall keep going sometimes, but it remains a bit of a mystery (there is no coffee after mass, for example). So I thought today that it was time I showed my face at the Anglican outpost, and there we are, something very different, but pleasing in its own way! Watch this space for more thoughts on church matters…